Right Theory: Culture and sophistry, part 1
In my “Mystical Bodies” series I provided an outline of a distinctly Catholic spiritual and moral understanding of electronic media, anchored in some ideas of Marshall McLuhan. I drew attention to two great corporate entities–one spiritual and the other pseudo-spiritual–that are globally intertwined in electronic media: the Mystical Body of Christ and the Mystical Body of anti-Christ. In my final post, I hinted at the possibility of what might be called a Catholic morality of representation by examining the distinction between those types of representation that Gilles Deleuze, following Plato, categorizes as “iconic copies” (although I prefer to use the term icon instead of iconic copy) and those he categorizes as “simulacra” (47-48). The icon, in which, semiotically speaking, the signifier bears an analogical resemblance to the signified, is the characteristic type of representation that flows through and links the members of the Mystical Body of Christ; the simulacrum, in which the signifier bears only an external resemblance to the signified, and only from a particular perspective, is the characteristic type of representation that flows through and links the members of the Mystical Body of anti-Christ.
I should clarify that although my focus so far has been on representation in electronic media, where visual signs often dominate, I do not mean to restrict the term icon to pictorial signs. Out of convenience and to avoid needless digressions, I am blending terminology from the semiotics of Charles Peirce and the semiology of Ferdinand de Saussure in ways that admittedly do not do justice to the complexity of their respective analytical frameworks. I’m sure that those well-versed in Peircean semiotics would quibble with my possibly overbroad definition of the icon, but I am not drawing on Peirce’s semiotics as a whole. Still, any non-pedantic corrections or criticisms are welcome.
As I have already stated, an icon in the broadest sense is any sign in which the signifier bears an analogical resemblance to the signified. If the resemblance between signifier and signified in what appears to be an icon is only apparent and proves to be weak or false upon closer investigation, then the sign is less of an icon and more of a simulacrum. If there is no analogical connection between signifier and signified, and the relationship is arbitrary and conventional, then the sign is a symbol. However, a concept signified through an arbitrary symbol may be interpreted as an icon if it bears an analogical resemblance to another signified.
The reader may notice that the way of thinking about semiotics outlined above, although it does not (I hope) deviate grossly from any of the core ideas of semiotics, shows something of an obsession with the icon, or with analogy as opposed to difference. Cultural Studies has always tended to focus on symbolic signs or symbolic aspects of signs as elements in differential sign-systems, while a Catholic approach to Cultural Studies, as I see it, would focus on iconic signs or iconic aspects of signs. The former approach, if taken to its extreme, offers a mystical semiotic vision of radical difference disintegrating into boundless, immanent plurality, while the latter approach offers a very different mystical vision: one of flourishing iconicity ascending the hierarchy of being to the transcendent Beatific Vision. Even so, one approach does not necessarily exclude the incorporation of the other, and they share some common elements.
In this series on Culture and Sophistry I will broaden my analysis beyond electronic media to culture in general. My specific argument is 1) that the basic tenets of Catholic moralities of cultural production, representation, and reception/perception can be drawn, in the spirit of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, from both Greek philosophy and a Christian conception of the world in which Christ is the “ultimate extension of man” or ultimate medium (McLuhan 262) and 2) that such moralities may function as the foundation of a Catholic model of cultural criticism and cultural praxis that is a viable alternative to the neo-Marxist and post-structuralist models that still dominate Cultural Studies.
I will begin where I left off in my last series, with the concept of the simulacrum–a concept that has been of great importance to post-structuralist cultural theory. Although post-structuralism has waned in influence since it reached its zenith around 20 years ago, and simulacral culture is not the hot topic it once was, many core post-structuralist assumptions remain part of academic discourse in Cultural Studies and the arts and social sciences in general. One of these assumptions, derived from the work of highly influential culture theorists like Gilles Deleuze and Jean Baudrillard, is that our postmodern culture is characterized by the prevalence or dominance of the simulacral. For the pessimistic Baudrillard, simulacral culture has become “hyperreal” in that representation now precedes and determines reality, creating a situation in which humanity is left rudderless in a sea of endless simulation. Deleuze embraces the ascendance of simulacral culture with a Nietzschean optimism, hoping that new structures might be formed in and through the resulting collapse of representation into raw power and difference. I agree that our culture is highly simulacral, but what culture theorists like Deleuze and Baudrillard, and those who follow them, never seem to consider is that the ascendence of the simulacral may not be a matter of historical necessity, that humans may be less susceptible to the lure of the simulacral than they imagine, and that perhaps Plato’s ideas regarding truth and representation are less naive and misdirected than they seem to think. Their philosophical orientation in this regard can be blamed in part on the academic cultures of Europe and North America, within which reconsiderations of classical and orthodox Christian thought in their original forms are typically seen as either naive or reactionary. Luckily, I am not hampered by such restraints. Though I do not pretend to have even a fraction of the philosophical acumen of the greats of French and German cultural theory, I believe much cultural theory is founded on error and I stubbornly cling to the idea that we can reclaim the real by engaging with culture from a Catholic perspective.
In my next post, I shall turn to the realm of classical thought, which has long played a role in the development of Catholic philosophy and theology, by drawing again from Plato’s Sophist with the hope that I can provide an interpretation of Plato’s distinction between icons and simulacra from a perspective opposed to that of Deleuze.
Deleuze, Gilles. “Plato and the Simulacrum.” Trans. Rosalind Krauss. October 27 (Winter, 1983): 45-56.
McLuhan, Marshall. “Playboy Interview – A candid conversation with the high priest of popcult and metaphysician of media.” Rpt. From Playboy (March 1969). Essential McLuhan. Eds. Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone. Concord, Ontario: Anansi, 1995. 233-69.